Role Playing – Not Just for Fun & Games

Role-playing is a key skill for effective teachers, because it gives us an opportunity to contemplate how our lesson design might be received by a student. It is important to remember that there is no such thing as an average student. Rather, each student brings a unique set of experiences, abilities, and skills to class each day. One of the benefits of my 20 years of experience in education is that I can think back to some of my more memorable students and ask myself whether or not each of my lessons would allow them to be successful. Would my D/deaf student be able to understand a video I am showing the class? Would one of my many students with ADD or ADHD be able to focus on my delivery during concept development? Am I providing enough scaffolding for my students with special learning needs? Do my English learners have rich opportunities to practice their reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills?

Fortunately, the tenets of UDL philosophy have encouraged me, time and again over the past several months, to keep asking such questions. This constant self-criticism and high-standards reflection hasn’t always been easy; my lesson design certainly takes more time than it did before I discovered UDL. On the other hand, this sort of role-playing creates a certain sense of satisfaction from lesson design. Even though designing learning for UDL is not a simple task, viewing lessons through the lens of a student who has a name and a story reminds me that, even though I will make mistakes and stumble along the way, at least my heart is in the right place when I try to make learning more relevant and accessible for all of my students.

The exercise of having a critical friend review my lesson design has been a valuable one. Although my classmate validated much of my Demo Course Shell, she made a couple of specific recommendations that I did incorporate into a last-minute revision. For example, she suggested that I provide my students an opportunity to discuss something they had tried during the demo course that did not work well for them. This was an interesting twist on the discussion prompts I had included, because it created a place where I could reassure my students that mistakes are an inevitable part of the learning process, and that they should not be afraid to make them. For this step of the process, I think it was especially helpful that I was paired with a partner from a very different grade level, because she was able to give me valuable feedback from a very different perspective.


My Demo Course Summative Assessment: A Reflection

Whenever I work with teachers, I try to constantly reflect on my role. I might be the technology expert, but my teachers will always know more about their specific grade levels and subject areas than I do. Even within the realm of technology, I frequently run into teachers who know things that I do not, especially when they have direct experiences with resources and contexts that I lack. I often liken my role as an athletic coach. Coaches have a unique big-picture understanding of the team’s goals, points of emphasis, and strategy going into each game. But smart coaches understand that the players on the field see and understand things that cannot be perceived from the sidelines, no matter how many years the coach may have played the game. Successful coaches listen to their players constantly, and keep an open mind about changing the game plan, even while they might have to sometimes tell players things they may not want to hear. It’s an idea that makes me a little nervous sometimes, to be perfectly honest.

Now that I have added the Summative Assessment Portfolio to my Demo Shell, I feel that it is a well-designed framework for my students to demonstrate and extend their learning throughout the Demo Unit. I have carefully struck a balance between providing enough structure and guidance so everyone will know what the portfolio looks like and how to assemble it, while still trying to remain true to that coach role I would like to portray. I have still left enough open to interpretation that my teachers can fill in the blanks with artifacts that are relevant to their unique jobs. This was not an easy task, and I’m not sure it’s fully done yet.

I might decide to make further refinements, because there are still a few elements of this summative assessment that I am not completely happy with. Although I think my video clip guide to New Google Sites is helpful, I would like to provide my students with some additional static links to some more in-depth instructions about how to work with New Google Sites (Wise, 2017a). I have located one possible resource, a 17-minute video clip posted by Technology for Teachers and Students (2016). I am not sure this is the best tutorial resource, however, and am still looking for one or more tutorials to add. This is very important because New Google Sites is very different than Classic Google Sites, so most easily-found tutorials about Classic Google Sites are likely to distract and confuse my students.

Also, my static template portfolio is not at all complete, because the individual assignments in my Weekly Demo Shell are not complete either (Wise, 2017b). I’ve decided to complete these individual assignments first, so I can include sample artifacts that look consistent. I might even stop calling it a template because, as far as I know, there is no easy way to make a template New Google Site, in the way that a Word, PowerPoint, Google Docs, or Google Slides file might be shared as a template. Rather, I might call this resource a sample portfolio, rather than a template.


Technology for Teachers and Students. (2016, August 22). The NEW Google sites – 2016 tutorial [Video file]. Retrieved from

Wise, B. (2017a). How to build your media tools portfolio on new Google sites [Video file]. Retrieved from

Wise, B. (2017b). Template – media tools. Retrieved from

Reaching Out to ISTE

I am continuing to build my Demo Course, entitled “The Technology-Savvy Educator,” which is aligned to one of the ISTE Standards for Teachers (International Society for Technology in Education, 2008). Specifically, I am designing this Course as a seven-week course of study, which will be available on CourseSites, intended for teachers who would like to deepen their understanding of how to use visual media tools like G Suite for Education, YouTube, EDpuzzle, Kahoot, and Quizizz to enhance their students’ learning and creative capacity. I am imagining that this Course, or at least portions of it, will be useful for EdTech trainers, TOSAs, and, technology mentor teachers.

Although I’m building this course and its learning activities primarily for the teachers I work with in my local school district, much of the Course overlaps with the ISTE Standards. So, I am hoping to reach out to ISTE for support, partnership, and advice as I continue to develop it. I have been an active member of ISTE since I took my current job position as a District EdTech Specialist, and I attended the 2016 ISTE Conference & Expo in Denver. I am already registered to attend this June’s annual event in San Antonio (International Society for Technology in Education, 2017). Although the deadline for session presentation submissions has passed, a “New Ideas” window opens next week, and I hope to pursue the possibility of presenting my Course, which will be completed just in time, at a poster session at the conference.

I’m also excited about the possibility of meeting peers from around the world who share a similar professional interest in developing EdTech professional learning resources for teachers. Who knows, perhaps I might be able to find one or more partners, either within ISTE or among the professionals who might drop by my poster session, who might be willing to coordinate efforts to create a larger set of technology training resources. Or, conversely, maybe such a grassroots tech training project may already exist that I would like to join. It may even be possible that someone involved with either ISTE or one of its affiliate organizations may notice this very blog post and reach out to me to get the ball rolling…

If your job includes training teachers to use technology, whether formally or informally, you know it can be challenging to find colleagues with whom to partner and collaborate professionally. Teaching can already be a lonely profession because most teachers spend the bulk of their work days in classrooms full of children, with very limited opportunities to communicate with other adults. This problem is compounded for tech trainers, many of whom must split their training responsibilities with part-time or full-time teaching jobs, and/or may have no one with a similar job at their school site–or even at their entire district.

I am blessed to share an office with two of the very best EdTech Specialists anywhere who are my partners. Plus, I have dozens of other colleagues within my District Office including Instructional Coaches, Ed Services staff, and Technology staff. In fact, my two partners have helped me present one component of my new Course, the YouTube Diner, at the CUE National Conference last month in Palm Springs. They even went along with my crazy idea to wear costumes at our poster session.

Our team presenting YouTube for teachers at the CUE National Conference on March 17, 2017.

Even if you’re fortunate like me and have terrific partners to work with, we all need to reach out and build the broadest Professional Learning Network that we can. After all, our work is far too complex–and too important–to be done in isolation. The great thing about technology is that you don’t really have to travel to a faraway technology conference to connect with colleagues. All you need is an internet connection and a willingness to reach out!


International Society for Technology in Education. (2008). ISTE standards for teachers. Retrieved from

International Society for Technology in Education. (2017). ISTE 2017 conference & expo. Retrieved from

Making a Google Sites Portfolio Assessment More Accessible Via Screencast

Technology in education is certainly a two-edged sword. On the one hand, modern technology gives students fantastic opportunities to learn in ways that were previously difficult, expensive, or impossible for teachers to design. Teachers often appreciate new technology tools that allow them to perform many of the complex or tedious tasks of education, like correcting papers and analyzing testing data, more effectively and efficiently. Modern media tools also have the potential to convey instruction–and develop problem-solving skills–much more effectively than the overhead projectors and chalkboards I used when I started my teaching career (Net Industries, 2017, para. 11).

On the other hand, new hardware and software learning tools are being developed and modified at a rapid pace that can overwhelm even the most tech-savvy educators. Often when I show teachers a new tech tool to make their jobs easier, they will ask me how long I think it will take for this tool to be replaced by something even better. My worst fear is that education technology might turn into a sort of Red Queen’s Race, in which teachers, like Alice in Wonderland, must constantly run just to stay in the same place (Carroll, 1871).

I’m currently working on designing my Demo Course Unit, which is a mini-course for teachers who would like to integrate visual media tools into their instruction. I’d like my teachers to build an electronic portfolio as a summative assessment for this Demo Unit, so that they can collect and share several artifacts that represent what they have learned about using modern technology tools in their lesson designs. I have decided that the best way to provide structure to this rather open-ended assessment is to provide my teachers with a template they may use to construct their New Google Sites portfolios (Wise, 2017b). My template will be shared with my teachers in a way that incorporates some variation in representation, which is an important consideration of Universal Design for Learning (CAST, 2015). I will provide my teachers with both a direct link to the template site and a narrated screencast video with subtitles (Wise, 2017a).


Carroll, L. (1871). Through the looking-glass [Project Gutenberg version]. Retrieved from

CAST. (2015). About universal design for learning. Retrieved from

Net Industries. (2017). Media and learning – definitions and summary of research, do media influence the cost and access to instruction? Retrieved from State University Education Encyclopedia web site:

Wise, B. (2017a). How to build your media tools portfolio on New Google Sites [Video file]. Retrieved from

Wise, B. (2017b). Template – media tools. Retrieved from

Using Google Sites to Create a Portfolio that Teachers Will Really Use

Since I left the classroom to work as an EdTech Specialist in my district, I didn’t think it would be appropriate to design a Demo Unit based on K-12 content standards such as the Common Core or NGSS. Rather, because my students are adult teachers with students of their own, I needed to find a set of standards that address professional learning and practice for teachers using technology in their classrooms. Fortunately, such a set of standards already exists; in fact, the ISTE Standards for Teachers have been adopted and used by many educators (International Society for Technology in Education, 2008).

For the purposes of my Demo Unit, I have selected ISTE Teacher Standard 2a, which states that teachers “[d]esign or adapt relevant learning experiences that incorporate digital tools and resources to promote student learning and creativity” (International Society for Technology in Education, 2008, p. 1). I selected this standard because I try not to dazzle my teachers with all of the latest technological tools, but rather to show them how technology tools can be thoughtfully and strategically used to support and enhance student learning. I love this particular standard because it focuses on using technology tools to support not only student learning, but also creativity. I am convinced that technology should not be used only as a substitute for traditional textbook-based instruction. Teachers should also use technology to allow their students to create meaningful products with relevance to their everyday lives.



In keeping with the spirit of 21st Century learning, this standard’s key verb is to design, which occupies perhaps the highest position on Bloom’s taxonomy (Armstrong, 2017). In my school district, we spend a lot of time and resources on thoughtful lesson design. I work in the Education Services division of my District Office, where I frequently collaborate with our twelve Instructional Coaches on lesson studies and concept-building activities with grade-level and subject-area teams of teachers. We often help teachers build complete lessons using complex templates that incorporate instructional norms including lesson objectives, content and skill development, embedded checks for understanding, relevance, and (of course) technology.


My teachers work in virtually every type of classroom imaginable, from transitional kindergarten to adult school, including both general-education and special-education settings. Thus, it is important for my summative assessment to be open-ended enough that each teacher would be able to create a practical and relevant project that could be used with his or her own students. I decided the best way to accomplish this goal was to assign my teachers to construct an online portfolio of lessons, learning activities, and assessments using the New Google Sites.

The ISTE Standard gives the option of designing or adapting lessons; therefore, it isn’t essential that the teacher personally design each item in the portfolio from scratch. In fact, teachers need to know how to efficiently and strategically adapt preexisting lesson resources to meet their students’ needs. The rubric for this portfolio won’t focus excessively on details of the artifacts themselves. Rather, I hope to focus my teachers’ attention mainly on the planning, feedback, and reflection associated with each artifact. In the end, I want my teachers to design a portfolio of technology-based lesson resources that they, their colleagues, and their students will really use.


Armstrong, P. (2017). Bloom’s taxonomy. Retrieved from Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching:

International Society for Technology in Education. (2008). ISTE standards for teachers. Retrieved from

My Journey from Ed-Tech Novice to Expert

According to Herr (2007), one of the most important differences between an expert and a novice is that experts are able to recognize patterns fluently with little or no effort (para. 14). Whereas a novice might be able to mobilize good strategies in order to solve a problem, experts have the ability to take a step back and assess whether or not the problem at hand is truly the most important problem.

Early in my teaching career, I once asked my principal if she could increase my copy budget, because I didn’t have enough funds to duplicate all of the lab instruction booklets I wanted for my science students. Because the principal was an expert, her response to my request was not a simple yes or no answer. Instead, she asked me a series of reflective questions about how my lab program was structured, in order to better judge whether my lab instruction packets were the best use of limited funds. Her motivation may have been, in part, to help me find ways to stay within my copy budget (after all, principals know that money doesn’t grow on trees), but she also did something that only experts can do: She changed the conversation from a relatively minor funding request into a much more valuable reflection on what my students were expected to learn from their labs, and how I expected them to demonstrate that learning.

Fast-forward a couple of decades to the present year, and most of my colleagues regard me as an educational technology expert. One principal I recently worked for even refers to me as a technology guru. I don’t know if I can quite live up to that moniker, but as I reflect on my own learning journey through my current master’s degree program, I see that even experts can learn more. In one of my earliest posts on this blog, I wrote about technology’s potential to expand learning opportunities for students by motivating them to learn (Wise, 2016). While this is true, I didn’t mention another very important advantage of modern instructional technology: its capacity to make learning more accessible for students with different abilities and/or learning styles.

Over the past few months, I’ve learned a lot about assistive technologies and universal design. For many students with special needs, modern technology makes a tremendous difference–not only in their learning, but in their entire lives. One of my colleagues recently showed me several types of software and devices that allow moderately and severely handicapped students to communicate; such technologies, she explained, give students access to language (K. Blevins, personal communication, March 8, 2017). I hadn’t thought about this idea much, mainly because I didn’t need to. As a general-education teacher, I’d only thought about assistive technologies and universal-design philosophy when I needed to adapt my curriculum because a special-needs student was enrolled in my class. Now my perspective has changed: Universal design isn’t just for students with special needs; it can benefit all students.

Of course, one of the consequences of being labeled an expert is that people turn to me for advice and answers to their trickiest problems. I hope that, over the course of the next several months, I may gain a deep understanding of universal design, so that I may provide useful services to not only my special-education colleagues, but for general-ed teachers as well. If I can manage to pull that off, then perhaps I may be one step closer to becoming a legitimate expert.


Herr, N. (2007). How experts differ from novices. Retrieved from The Sourcebook for Teaching Science web site:

Wise, B. (2016). Three ways electronic learning will be important to the classroom of the future [Web log comment]. Retrieved from

iNACOL Standards Self-Assessment

iNACOL Standards for EDUU 625:

Standard E: The online teacher models, guides, and encourages legal, ethical, and safe behavior related to technology use.

My Score: 2 (Yes, I do this.) I have delivered Common Sense Media Nearpod lessons on digital citizenship, and try to model ethical online behavior at all times when teaching.

Standard F: The online teacher is cognizant of the diversity of student academic needs and incorporates accommodations into the online environment.

My Score: 1 (I do this infrequently.) Although I care very much about accommodating student needs in my teaching, I must admit that I have tended to approach accommodations from a reactive, rather than a proactive, stance.

Standard G: The online teacher demonstrates competencies in creating and implementing assessments in online learning environments in ways that ensure validity and reliability of the instruments and procedures.

My Score: 2 (Yes, I do this.) Both on my own and in collaboration with other teachers in a Professional Learning Community, I feel that designing valid and reliable electronic assessments is a strength for me.

Standard H: The online teacher develops and delivers assessments, projects, and assignments that meet standards-based learning goals and assesses learning progress by measuring student achievement of the learning goals.

My Score: 1 (I kind of get this and might do it.) If you had asked me this question three or four years ago, I would have given myself a 2; however, it has been difficult to adjust assessment practices to accurately measure the new Common Core standards, particularly the higher-order thinking skills.

Standard I: The online teacher demonstrates competency in using data from assessments and other data sources to modify content and to guide student learning.

My Score: 1 (I do this infrequently.) Although I think my PLC partners and I are very effective at meaningful collaboration and genuine reflection on our practice, time is a serious limiting factor that prevents me from meeting this standard as often as I would like.


International Association for K-12 Online Learning. (2011). National standards for quality online teaching. Retrieved from

Digital Curation: A Tool for 21st Century Learning

My first teaching job was in a high school science department that had a shared office where each of the teachers had a desk with one or two file cabinets. In those days, most lesson plans were still on paper, although there was a computer in the room with a floppy disk drive and a modest connection to the recently-invented world wide web. When I began working in that office, the department chair encouraged me to freely peruse and borrow lessons and resources from any of the other teachers, and then pointed out an empty file cabinet that I should use to begin my own collection of lessons that I would be willing to share.

I quickly learned which teachers could usually be trusted to have a well-organized drawer of carefully vetted lesson ideas, and which teachers simply stored 35 copies of every worksheet that came with their adopted textbook. The cabinets packed full of paper worksheets weren’t where I usually would find the best lesson plans, assessments, and project ideas, and herein lies the distinction between curating vs. collecting. Curators try to share a relatively small number of the best resources, whereas collectors tend to stash everything they can get their hands on. In his video, Pant (2013) gave the example of the sommelier as a curator of fine wine, which I think is an excellent analogy. Twenty years ago, I never would have consulted a sommelier except maybe to help pick the wine to be served at my wedding reception–but now, with a smartphone in my pocket, why wouldn’t I want to peek at a trusted wine review web site when I’m deciding which bottle of wine to pick up at the grocery store?

Simply put, technology has made quality curation available to everyone, including teachers. Educators now have access to literally millions of their colleagues’ virtual file cabinets on the Internet. These resources aren’t all paper worksheets, either; a URL can point to almost any type of media, from movies to blog posts to interactive learning environments. CourseWorld, for example, is a curated set of 16,000 educational videos that have been selected and indexed by a staff of over 50 experts in the humanities and arts (Nelson, 2013). What makes this site powerful is that the videos are organized in a well-designed topical hierarchy that allows a teacher to quickly drill down, with just a few mouse clicks, to a small set of vetted videos on a specific topic.

As we have discussed earlier in this course, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) philosophy emphasizes the variation of representation in teaching, so that students with varying abilities and learning styles will be able to succeed (CAST, 2011). A well-curated resource list should allow teachers to quickly access a variety of learning resources, preferably in a variety of formats, so that different types of learners can be supported. Curation itself can be an excellent authentic assessment task for students, because they would use higher-level thinking skills as they evaluate which resources they should collect into a portfolio. This is not just a cute way to structure a hands-on lesson; curation is quickly becoming a 21st century job skill, as more and more career fields depend on web-based resources for communication, training, design, and collaboration. Curation even has the power to open whole new types of learning for students. Sheninger (2013) described how high-school students used MIT OpenCourseWare to learn about video-game programming. This learning resource contained a carefully curated set of coding lessons, which the students were able to freely access as they were trying to figure out how to code their video games. Perhaps this is the most exciting possibility for digital curation: that people are free to use curated resources to quickly and efficiently teach themselves whatever they want to learn about virtually any subject.

Of course, digital curation does open up ethical and legal issues. Some of the best educational content on the Internet has been produced by people who have invested significant amounts of money and/or time. We teachers have liberal fair-use rights under copyright law, but we don’t get to steal expensive resources for free. A teacher who violates terms of use restrictions, even with the best of intentions, can expose himself (and the school district) to significant financial and legal liability. Even more importantly, we teachers have a responsibility to keep our students safe online. Many online learning resources are intended for older children or adults, and don’t feature the privacy protections and/or content filters that should be in place for younger children. Here is where curation is especially important: teachers should be able to quickly filter out web sites and web-based learning tools that aren’t appropriate to students at their grade level. In fact, this may be a part of the teaching role that won’t change by the end of the 21st century. No matter how much knowledge becomes available on the world wide web, and no matter how well that information is curated and organized for students, we will still need human teachers to guide students safely along their learning journey.


CAST. (2011). UDL at a glance [Video file]. Retrieved from

Nelson, S. (2013, September 24). CourseWorld curates repository of free arts and humanities media [Web log comment]. Retrieved from THE Journal web site:

Pant, A. (2013, October 7). Art of curation in education – course and instructor introduction [Video file]. Retrieved from

Sheninger, E. (2013, March 22). OCW supports independent study for N.J. high school students (via MIT News) [Web log comment]. Retrieved from

Immersive Learning: The Teacher Is Still the Teacher

The creators of the Scientopolis immersive science environment have created an interactive world where students can learn science by controlling virtual avatars in a medieval town (Immersive Education, 2012). As students make their way through the immersive learning activity, they use data from a variety of sources, including information provided by the simulation itself, which students can analyze using built-in data table and graph generators (Immersive Education, 2012). Of course, even though the students’ avatars are trapped in a virtual world of the past, the students themselves have access to an internet-connected computer, so they can also take full advantage of the research potential of the devices they have at hand.

Ideally, a teacher should structure a learning activity using this software in a way that requires students to synthesize information from a variety of sources. In the Scientopolis weather scenario, for example, students must devise a practical solution for a multi-year drought based on simulation data and their own understanding of meteorology from their science lessons (Immersive Education, 2012). If I were using this tool in my own science classroom, I would try to present the problem as a complex one that has more than one plausible answer; that way, students would be forced to make difficult decisions based on careful cost-benefit analysis. This unit on drought would be particularly relevant to my students, who live in California’s Central Valley, where the entire population is quite familiar with the challenges a community faces when water is in short supply.

An immersive and complex learning experience should contain assessments that are also immersive and complex. Formative assessment is crucial in such a learning activity. It may be tempting for a teacher to assume a back-seat role while students are working independently in their virtual worlds, but that would be a mistake. Just because students are learning by doing in an online environment, it is still the teacher’s responsibility to make sure that students are on-track towards meeting the project’s predetermined learning goals. In the specific case of the Scientopolis module, a teacher might use a variety of periodic checks for understanding, including quick surveys at the end of each daily lesson, or perhaps a longer paragraph writing prompt that asks the student to summarize progress towards the objectives. Also, teachers should not forget to check in, face-to-face, with students on a regular basis.

These formative assessments should then be used to make any necessary adjustments as the project unfolds. A teacher may discover, for example, that the project timeline may need to be adjusted, or some struggling students may need to be provided with strategic hints in order to catch up. Also, teachers should have one or more enrichment activities ready to assign in case one or more advanced students complete their projects early.

When it comes to summative assessment, teachers should not rely solely on multiple-choice or similar objective tests when students complete an immersive learning experience. After all, much of what the students learn would be impossible to measure with multiple-choice test questions anyway. Ideally, students should be asked to demonstrate their learning by completing a practical project. In the drought example mentioned above, for instance, students might prepare a real-life narrated multimedia presentation about climate change and drought for a real-life town hall meeting. Such an assessment would require a carefully constructed rubric to ensure that students clearly understand the teacher’s expectations before they begin work. As Palloff and Pratt (2009) explained, rubrics can also help minimize the chance of conflict and disagreement about project grading (p. 70). Thus, by careful design, a teacher might use an immersive resource like Scientopolis to teach valuable critical-thinking skills while motivating students to achieve at higher levels.


Immersive Education. (2012, June 12). iED 2012 save science [Video file]. Retrieved from

Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (2009). Assessing the online learner: Resources and strategies for faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Rubrics: An Essential Tool for 21st Century Learning

I’m not sure why, but I don’t remember a lot of rubrics being used when I was in high school and college. My high-school history teacher, for example, required us to write a five-paragraph essay each week for the entire school year. He was a notoriously difficult grader, and always returned our essays to us with plenty of comments scribbled in red ink. Even though he was a very dedicated teacher and his feedback was very useful, it was always a bit of a guessing game for us to try to discern what he expected from our weekly essays. Rubrics would have helped us tremendously even then, back in the 20th Century, because they would have removed much of the guesswork from our writing.

In the 21st Century, of course, rubrics are even more important because students have so much more creative freedom associated with their learning. When I was writing my weekly history essays 25 years ago, I was probably relying on just one or two sources of information–probably a textbook chapter plus maybe a photocopied article. Students in a high school history class today, of course, would be expected to do much more than write the same five-paragraph essay each week. Modern web tools allow students to create more authentic projects. As the University of Colorado Denver (2006) stated in their online rubric tutorial, rubrics can provide clear descriptions of teachers’ expectations across a broad range of assignment types, from written reports to experiments, design tasks, and other real-world demonstrations of learning. In fact, I can imagine a 21st Century history teacher giving students a free-form assignment on a topic–say, the Civil War, for example. Even if students are allowed to select the format of their Civil War project from a long list of options (oral report, role-playing skit, video clip, web site, etc.), a savvy teacher might be able to use the exact same rubric that covers all of these options.

Another benefit of rubrics to the 21st Century learner is that they force assessment to be criterion-referenced, rather than norm-referenced (University of Colorado Denver, 2006). Without clearly stated learning objectives, it can be easy for teachers to slip into a bell-curve mentality. Virtually all of my college math and science courses in the 1990s were graded on a curve. Most of the professors in these classes based our grades on norm-referenced, multiple-choice tests. For those of us who wanted to earn an “A,” it wasn’t enough to complete all of our work on-time and at a high level of quality. We also had to look over our shoulders and make sure our exam scores were always were one or two standard deviations above the mean. In these classes, I remember students would often ask professors what would happen if every student in the class was a genius who did terrific work–could everyone in the course receive an “A” grade? Rubrics help break this sad concept of sorting students by keeping the focus where it should be: on whether or not students have mastered the essential learning objectives. In a perfect world, a student should receive the same grade for the same learning, regardless of who the teacher is or who else happens to be enrolled in the same class section. In this sense, well-crafted rubrics can be an important way to ensure equity of grading.

Rubrics have even more power as learning tools when they are designed and scored by collaborative teams of teachers. The University of California Denver (2006) suggested that the reliability of a rubric can be improved by having multiple graders score an assessment against the same rubric. In recent years, I have been fortunate enough to participate in such a process. Last year, for example, the high school I taught at assigned two campus-wide writing benchmarks. We graded these essays using our common District writing rubric. During the scoring sessions for these benchmark essays, instructional coaches from the District Office were on hand to help us calibrate our scoring with sample papers, and we were able to ask one another’s help when we had to make difficult judgement calls. Again, this was a great opportunity for rubrics to enhance 21st Century learning, as our students’ papers and rubrics were shared electronically, which streamlined the process significantly. Student work was also electronically screened for plagiarism, thus further enhancing the reliability of the assessment. Activities like this are time-consuming, of course, but whenever teams of teachers use real-time common assessment data to help them improve their instruction, that is a golden opportunity to improve learning that shouldn’t be passed up.


University of Colorado Denver. (2006). Creating a rubric: An online tutorial for faculty. Retrieved from